Some of the new television programming for 2012 has been hard to follow. Last Sunday, for instance, I tuned into the ABC’s Insiders to monitor my old mate Gerard ‘Hendo’ Henderson. Imagine my surprise to see that Barrie Cassidy has been replaced by a George Hamilton impersonator, displaying the same vaingloriously fake tan and over-use of the inkpot.
Whatever happened to the ABC’s youth policy in news and current affairs? In each of its flagship programs, Dad’s Army marches on. Cassidy, who turned 62 this month, has been superseded by the septuagenarian Hamilton. Old Wrong-Way, Kerry O’Brien, was too shopworn for 7.30, yet somehow he’s young enough to host Four Corners.
Time, however, is catching up with Red Kez (aged 66). Recently he lost his driver’s licence for speeding. Fortunately, no penalty was imposed for driving on the wrong side of Canberra Avenue. In the nation’s capital that night, one of the passengers in Wrong-Way’s people-mover was Cassidy’s wife Heather Ewart. The ABC may resemble a nursing home, but the residents still have to drive their own courtesy bus.
The best way of injecting new blood into the ABC is privatisation. Look at the baby-faced presenters of its private sector rival, Sky News: David Speers and Peter Van Onselen. Unlike the commercial world, the ABC operates as a club, allowing old favourites to linger well past their use-by date. This is how the Triassic Trio of O’Brien, Hamilton and Ewart survive.
One of the essentials in a politician’s kitbag is the stump speech for the party faithful. In my heyday (or was that a heyhour?) my best story concerned the board of the ABC. I noted how John Howard had appointed his best friend Donald McDonald as chairman and how Peter Costello had put Michael Kroger on the board. The punchline? If Tony Abbott had any friends they would have got a job as well. The Labor luvvies loved it.
This reminds me of one of the lingering puzzles of the Howard era. Given the appointment of a string of economic rationalists to the ABC board, why wasn’t the ABC rationalised? In Labor’s shadow cabinet at the time, we expected serious reform to purge the place of its gentrified, left-wing culture. Year after year we waited for the Liberal party’s revenge, but nothing happened.
This was a case of organisational capture. Chairman McDonald saw his role as defending the senior management clustered around him. Far from attacking the ABC’s insular culture, he added to it with his pompous and aloof style. The efforts of the genuine rationalists on the board were frustrated by their fellow Howardite. When McDonald boasted last year of his (purported) role in the sacking of the Sydney radio presenter Deborah Cameron, it racked up a notable first. He spent ten years as chairman of the ABC (1996-2006) and never got rid of a single leftie.
This is a festering problem for the Liberal party and an incoming Abbott government. The conservative side of politics, naturally enough, attracts a high proportion of establishment-type figures, highly skilled in defending the status quo. Hard-nosed reformers, in the mould of Costello and Kroger, are a minority influence. This is why the Fraser government, for instance, was so ineffective. It was run by Australia’s Bunyip aristocracy, the inbred sons of the landed gentry.
Establishment figures, by definition, are useless in taking on outfits like the ABC. Grahame Morris, John Howard’s former chief of staff, once described the national broadcaster as ‘our enemies talking to our friends’. Under McDonald’s leadership, the Liberals’ friends embraced the Liberals’ enemies at the ABC. To achieve lasting reform, Abbott’s administration will need to take a harder line.
For this reason, I am willing to make a significant sacrifice. For a limited 12-month term, I am prepared to chair the ABC and do the things McDonald didn’t do. My strategy will be to slice and dice: selling off the component parts of the organisation, starting with its bookshops, then the arty-farty stuff, before moving onto its radio and television assets. Australia’s last remaining mausoleum of socialist demagoguery will be dismantled. By the end of this Lathamesque reign of terror, all that will remain is old George Hamilton and a couch.
The benefits of ABC privatisation are immense. Capital will be returned to the federal budget, an economic necessity during a time of global uncertainty. Family and church life will also be enhanced. As Hendo demonstrated on Christmas Day, Radio National is dragging grandfathers away from their grandchildren. Good Christians, especially of the DLP variety, are being distracted from the birth of Christ.
Hardworking nurses in our public hospitals also support privatisation. They are under siege, wasting time and resources in having to repeatedly chase the Chaser boys out of children’s cancer wards. Imagine a world without these clowns tormenting terminally ill infants. As with the tragic boatpeople drownings, the humane policy is actually the right-wing policy.
Mark Latham is a paid contributor to Sky News and a former Labor leader.